Promoting Learning at Every Stage of Teachers' Careers

Summer 2018

By Danielle Passno, Eric Zahler

Shouldn’t we be better at this by now? That was the first thought we had after watching video of ourselves teaching. And the cringe remained beyond any initial “is-that-really-what-my-voice-sounds-like” shock. Well into our second and third decades as educators, we found ourselves asking, “Why did I ask such a closed-ended question? Why didn’t I use wait time more effectively? Were my students really thinking about the big ideas or were they just trying to get the right answer? How did I fail to notice that two students were not engaged?”

The answer isn’t that we’re bad teachers, but that teaching is enormously difficult and complex. In an oft-repeated statistic, Charlotte Danielson, the acclaimed educator and author who developed the well-known Framework for Teaching, found in a 1996 study that teachers make an average of 3,000 nontrivial instructional decisions in a typical day. Assuming that most of these happen in the classroom, a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that teachers make one nontrivial decision every five seconds. Think about what “nontrivial” means here: Every five seconds, a teacher makes a choice that has a significant consequence for student learning. No wonder we get some of these wrong.

Schools and organizations across the country are doing exciting work to professionalize the art and the science of teaching. Independent schools are particularly well-positioned and resourced to accomplish such a goal, but we can also be hindered by culture challenges. We are justifiably proud of the strong communities we build where teachers know students deeply and are honored for their charisma and diverse teaching styles. Yet there is a danger in using strong community as a proxy for the knowledge and habits of mind our students actually retain from our curriculum. That’s why it’s so important for teachers to continue to learn at every stage of their career.

And it’s what inspired us to launch an institute for experienced teachers at The Spence School (NY) in 2017.

The Elements of Great Teaching

Great teaching is hard to come by because it requires that so many things go right at the exact same time in a classroom full of individuals. Consider what might arise in a teacher’s mind the instant after a student asks a question:
  • „What is the student really asking?
  • Why did the student ask this particular question at this particular time in the lesson?
  • How did the other students hear and understand the question?
  • What does the question reveal about what the student understands and what she may not understand?
  • What response will allow the student to further her thinking while also engaging the minds of the many other students in the room who may or may not have the same question?
  • Who should give the response to the question?
  • How much time should I wait before responding to the question?
  • How much time should I spend answering the question?
Every teacher is familiar with pedagogy on the fly, and it is possible to get good at teaching simply by being in the classroom and practicing each day. What we know about how human learning works, however, at every age, suggests that we could improve by leaps and bounds if we had time to make our practice visible and reflect on the effects of our split-second decisions. Yet when you are doing the intense, daily work of caring for students and helping them learn, sharing your disciplinary passions, and plumbing your understanding of children’s multiple identities and complex developmental paths, being faced with shortcomings can directly target the heart of your identity.

What we’ve learned from Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, is that while vulnerability is often debilitating, it is, paradoxically, also the key to learning. To become a truly great teacher, you have to reveal that you aren’t yet, and—salt in the wound—you have to reveal it over and over again.

A willingness to be vulnerable and a medium to make teaching practice visible are essential but insufficient ingredients for growth. We need to know what to look for and how to look for it. We don’t need a recipe for good teaching—such a thing would stifle creativity and drive away most passionate teachers, even if it were possible. Rather, we need a common language.

The Institute 

Learn to be vulnerable, make your work visible with colleagues, and use a research-based lens to understand what you see—these are the three guiding principles we used to create the Teaching Institute at Spence. The institute is our attempt to build a deep professional development experience; it is rooted in the belief that teachers can grow at every stage of their careers and that schools cannot grow stronger without a culture of sustained teacher learning. It aims to provide teachers with concrete tools to improve practice, help participants learn how to foster teacher growth in their schools, and create a community of educators who can call on one another throughout their careers.

In our weeklong pilot during the summer of 2017, we invited six teachers with 10 or more years of experience from five different schools to come together, discover something about their practice they had not noticed before, and work to better understand it. In preparation, each participant filmed two hours in the classroom and collected samples of student work. We have found classroom video to be a highly effective tool for professional learning. There’s nothing quite as revealing—it allows us to slow down and notice what we did well and where our instructional moves fell short. What stops so many of us from using video is finding space in our busy days to examine it and the psychic energy required to face our weaknesses.

The videos and student artifacts formed the basis for much of our time together. At the start of the week, we explored past experiences of vulnerability in our school lives, discussed Brené Brown’s work, came to a shared understanding of the conditions in which vulnerability shuts down and when it inspires learning, learned about the TRU Framework (see “TRU Story”at left), and, most critically, developed a set of shared norms for our work that would allow us to be vulnerable with one another. Then we pressed play on the videos participants had collected.

Amy teaches seventh-grade math and strongly believes in an inquiry-oriented classroom. We watched a clip from her lesson exploring probability and used a protocol we designed called “positive interrogation” to generate discussion. Based on the Five Whys, a technique the Toyota Motor Corporation originally developed for improving production, the protocol asked participants to share—using descriptive, nonjudgmental language—everything they noticed. Amy then chose which of these observations intrigued her, and participants asked five progressively deeper “why” questions to help Amy understand her instructional choices. In watching the video and answering our questions, Amy saw that students shared many ideas about the difficult problem at hand, and that she effectively used these ideas to construct a shared understanding. She also saw that students directed their comments at her, that she responded to each one, and that there was not clear evidence that students listened to one another’s comments.

Our questions helped Amy learn two things: One, that she is, in fact, really good at something that she had felt confident about—using student ideas as the driving force behind a mathematical investigation—but had stopped appreciating because it had become second nature to her. (Indeed many teachers strive to improve this in their own classrooms.) Simultaneously, Amy identified a tangible area for growth, namely to have students generate their own questions, listen to one another, respond to one another, and build on one another’s ideas. 

This is just one example of the powerful learning teachers experienced during the institute. Three things stood out in the formal written feedback we collected at the end of the week. First, sustained close examination of practice with other teachers is the exception rather than the rule in professional development. Second, feeling safe to express vulnerability is an essential prerequisite to growth. Finally, the fact that there are no simple solutions is not a reason to shun simple interventions. It is precisely because teaching is so complex that looking at the smallest moments of teaching and making tiny, incremental improvements can lead to lasting growth and deepened student learning.

In August 2018 and in summers beyond, our vision is to build on the success of this pilot, opening up the weeklong institute to greater numbers of teachers from across the country. While focusing on the same three key principles, we anticipate continually reshaping the institute’s protocols, readings, and activities based on what we learn from each new cohort.

Pressing Pause

In the 2011 New Yorker article “Personal Best,” Atul Gawande describes his state of mind after eight years as a surgeon. “I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better.” Gawande identifies stages he’s moved through—unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence—and at the end of the piece, he reflects on a lesson that he learned from a coach: Most surgery is done in your head. “Your performance is not determined by where you stand or where your elbow goes,” he writes. “It’s determined by where you decide to stand, where you decide to put your elbow.” Likewise, teaching that causes deep student learning is mostly done in our heads, both while planning lessons and, crucially, in the split-second decisions we make 3,000 times a day. By creating faculty cultures of reflection and vulnerability and using tools like video to help teachers examine their work, schools can help teachers become consciously competent.

The surprising outcome of the effort involved in examining one’s practice, and the exposure to colleagues that comes with it, is how much fun this work can be. As one participant said, “I have learned to take joy in the inordinate complexity of my chosen vocation.” Perhaps this is not so surprising at all—as it turns out, the experience teachers have learning is awfully similar to what we hope to craft for our students. ▪

TRU Story
The Teaching for Robust Understanding (TRU) Framework, based on the work of Alan Schoenfeld, a professor at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, was an integral part of the Teaching Institute at Spence. TRU is designed to be comprehensive and relatively simple, and focuses on five interconnected dimensions of powerful classrooms:

The content: there are opportunities for students to become knowledgeable, flexible, and resourceful disciplinary thinkers

Cognitive demand: students are engaged in productive struggle

Equitable access: the classroom invites and supports the active engagement of all students in the classroom

Agency, ownership, and identity: students see themselves as disciplinary thinkers, know their ideas matter to the progress of a lesson, and are willing to engage actively

Formative assessment: instruction elicits student understanding and then adapts so as to respond to students’ ideas, building on productive beginnings and addressing misunderstandings

To learn more about the TRU framework, including tools and resources, go to
Learn More
For more information about the Teaching Institute at Spence and to apply, go to
Danielle Passno

Danielle Passno was the director of outreach and public purpose at The Spence School in New York City. As of July 1, 2018, she is head of middle school at The Browning School in New York City.

Eric Zahler

Eric Zahler is director of teaching and learning at The Spence School in New York City.